10.10 March 8, Great Library, Law Society of Upper Canada, Osgoode hall, Toronto
Slit. Rip. Toss.
The sound of buckram leather bindings being sliced from the American collection in the Great Library. Dust settling in the big bins where the paper is going off for recycling at a few dollars a ton. Workmen with exacto knives attack the old West Law Reports.
What’s happening? The Great Library is embarked on its biggest discard operation. American caselaw is going the way of all flesh. Why should libraries squeezed for space keep the books, which no-one wants? It’s all on Westlaw and Lexis anyway.
Well yes it is, and readers of Slaw won’t deny progress. But I was deeply saddened to witness the process of tearing law books apart.
I know the Great Library needs the space, and that shelf space is never infinite, but I just wonder what we have lost.
This isn’t just premature nostalgia for print or Nicholson Baker’s rant against illegible micofilm.
I wonder whether there isn’t something in the act of browsing and shelf reading that in fact turns up useful and relevant research, but will never occur in research that is subject to Boolean strictures.
I wonder whether the process of research may not be more directly shaped by whether material is there to be gatherered together in a library, as opposed to being paid for page by page.
I’ve been the frustration of every neat, reshelving librarian I’ve ever worked with because my working habits involve pulling a couple of dozen volumes of case law off the shelf, and then start to quickly scan the pages to determine which four or five are worth reading and analyzing closely. I tend to do a lot of shelf-reading and browsing through indexes and tables of contents.
Will I do that as readily – pursue footnotes or check on a Key Number reference – if I have to incur Westlaw charges, in addition to my hourly rate? Will I seek out answers that may not be obvious? Will I really go beyond quick and dirty research for all but the largest stake cases?
I can say, of course, that’s what researchers are trained to do. And yet. And yet.
Who knows what we lose when we move to purely electronic access. And the American Room, whose gorgeous Victorian design we all love, will never quite be the same again.